Chris Miller: Photographing Bristol Bay
Photographing commercial fishing takes a special sort of person—one who doesn’t mind the salty spray of waves, the blood and slime of fish and the “colorful” nature many fishermen possess. Chris Miller, an acclaimed photographer who lives in Douglas, Alaska, is such a man. Some say Neptune himself molded Miller in his own form and set him forth on his destiny to roam the oceans with a camera in one hand and a trident in the other. When asked about this legend, Miller gets a faraway look as he stares out on the ocean.
“I’m a fisherman. I’ll only lie to you,” he says.
Fishermen picking sockeye salmon in Bristol Bay. Photo by Chris Miller
It was a debt no honest man could pay that first brought Miller to Bristol Bay. He’d just graduated school and was wondering what his next step in life would be, as well as how to pay off college debt. Going fishing seemed like the natural thing to do. He’d grown up in Southeast Alaska and, since high school, deck-handed on gill-netters and seiners on the waters near his home. He’d heard stories of Bristol Bay’s sockeye fishery—how it was the biggest in the world and a crew member could make good money during the six-week long season. He packed his raingear and camera and bought a plane ticket to King Salmon. Even though he was no stranger to the hard work and stress involved in fishing, Bristol Bay came as a shock.
“My mouth was open half of the time during those first few days. It was insanity,” Miller said.
There were boats everywhere, setting their nets atop of each other and on the verge of ramming each other. The scene was more akin to sharks in a feeding frenzy than the “gentlemen’s fishery” Miller was used to in Southeast Alaska. Miller soon learned that despite what appeared to be chaos, somehow it all worked.
A gillnetter in the Ugashik District of Bristol Bay. Photo by Chris Miller
Between picking a seemingly endless procession of fish from the net and being sleep-deprived, Miller became fascinated with Bristol Bay. Maybe it was the flood of salmon, or the surrounding wild country inhabited by a dense population of giant brown bears, or the interesting people who lived and worked in the region. Since then, he’s returned 14 seasons and counting.
One of the big reasons Miller keeps coming back is photography.
“The money wasn’t that great when I started. Salmon returns were half of what they are now. But it seemed like the natural place to shoot (photographs),” Miller said.
During Miller’s first season, he realized that photographing Bristol Bay wasn’t something a lot of people were doing. “Shooting” the bay presented some difficulties. When the salmon were running, Miller had no time to do anything besides pick fish. Still, during shoulder seasons, and one summer thanks to the help of a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation, he amassed an impressive catalogue of images.
Ghosts of Bristol Bay's past. Photo by Chris Miller
Miller applies the work ethic he learned from fishing to his photography. Not long after he began photographing Bristol Bay, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) contracted him to photograph fisheries across the state. Over the years, he’s traveled far and wide to document everything from mom and pop power trollers in Southeast Alaska to industrial pollock trawlers in the Bering Sea.
“Once upon a time I dreamed of photographing every fishery in the state,” Miller said.
It’s a dream that still may come true, but Miller is also invested in photographing a variety of other subjects unrelated to commercial fishing. His work often focuses on wild places, and the way local people balance recreation and conservation with their lives and the economy of the region. Frequently, Miller explores contested places like the transboundary watersheds shared by Southeast Alaska and British Columbia, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the last stands of old growth forest in Southeast Alaska and the long fought-over proposed road from Cold Bay to King Cove on the Alaska Peninsula. He’s often featured in the New York Times, Alaska Magazine and other publications.
Despite his varied career, Bristol Bay still has a strong hold on him. He’s been considering a book project on the Bay for years, but there are always more aspects of the place, its people and its fishery he wants to explore in greater depth with his photography.
“I’d love to spend more time upriver, and in the lakes, when the salmon are spawning. I want to get back and spend more time photographing set-netters on the Nushagak River. It’s a different, more family-oriented scene there,” Miller said and, after some thought, added, “I think it would be kind of interesting to cover the enforcement side of things, too. It’s super important to the fishery. Especially the fish counters at the counting towers.”
Chris Miller photographing the troll fishery in Southeast Alaska. Photo by Chris Miller
Someday Miller might quit fishing the Bay, but he says he’ll never quit Bristol Bay.
“I’ll always have a connection to that fishery and place. Even if I didn’t fish next season, I’d still be there photographing,” Miller said.
Check out Miller’s work on his website, csmphotos.com, and follow him on Instagram @csmphotos.
Pride of Bristol Bay is a free column written by Bjorn Dihle and provided by its namesake, a fisherman direct seafood marketer that specializes in delivering the highest quality of sustainably caught wild salmon from Bristol Bay to your doorstep.
Photographer Chris Miller knows Bristol Bay is something worth celebrating. Photo by Chris Miller